Government needs to get handle on synthetic marijuana

The federal government needs to act swiftly to tighten controls on the possession and sale of synthetic marijuana compounds that are showing up in herbal spices sold in certain retail outlets.

The chemical compounds have not been approved for human consumption, but they haven’t been outlawed, either.

That needs to change, and change fast before someone dies of a drug overdose.

A ban on synthetic marijuana use is no guarantee that recreational use of it will end. But a ban, combined with a strong public health education message, could quickly educate people about the dangers they face if they continue smoking it.

Right now, the popularity of this family of chemical compounds that mimic marijuana in a much more potent way is growing faster than the efforts to control them.

The somewhat twisted logic of those experimenting with these drugs goes like this: It’s not illegal, so it must be OK.

In reality, designer drugs and experimental drugs are formulated faster than regulators can respond. Look what’s happened in recent years with steroids, human growth hormones and other performance enhancing drugs used by athletes. They often hit the black market before laboratories learn how to test for them.

The availability of synthetic marijuana compounds outside the world of sanctioned medical research needs to be curtailed. Even in laboratory studies, synthetic marijuana isn’t used in human experiments, only with animals.

Hospital emergency rooms and poison control centers are seeing a spike in cases where people have experienced serious, even life-threatening reactions from these potent, toxic chemicals.

Last month, a 17-year-old Tumwater boy who smoked an herbal spice containing synthetic marijuana was admitted to the emergency room at Providence St. Peter Hospital with serious symptoms, including muscle contractions, low blood pressure and a heart rate of 170 beats per minute. His symptoms were brought under control, but the emergency room doctor who attended to him said he could have died without prompt medical attention.

This is not an isolated case.

The number of people getting sick from smoking synthetic marijuana is on the rise as it grows more popular across the state and the nation, authorities say.

For instance, hospitals in this state report 29 people have been admitted for treatment this year after smoking synthetic marijuana. This compares with seven cases in 2009.

Nationwide, there were 13 reports to poison centers in 2009. Through July 23 this year, the number had skyrocketed to 843, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers.

The emergency medical community suggests the reported cases are just the tip of the iceberg, with many more going unreported.

So, what can be done about these potent pot substitutes?

Stores carrying these herbal spices spiked with synthetic marijuana need to pull them off the shelves and manufacturers of herbal spices and incense need to stop adding them to their products. Access to these dangerous drugs is just too easy without swift, voluntary action.

Bans on synthetic marijuana have been passed by legislatures in 10 states. But a national problem like this demands a national response.

Adding a drug or other chemical compounds to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s list of controlled substances is a lengthy process. It’s worth pursuing, but more must be done in the interim.

One solution would be for Congress to pass legislation to restrict the possession and use of synthetic marijuana compounds. Individual members of Congress have already pressed officials at DEA and the Department of Human and Health Services to step up their review of synthetic marijuana.

Only members of Congress have the ability to bypass the regulatory process that should eventually lead to tighter controls on synthetic marijuana. It’s incumbent upon them to act.